Note: This is a series of stories at INDYCAR.com highlighting Women’s History Month in March.
The sun was beating down on pit lane March 3 as crew members made final preparations before sending each of their respective drivers out for opening practice for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding.
At a stall near pit exit, Caitlyn Brown bolted a tire on the No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet, and moments later a plume of smoke erupts from the rear tires as Josef Newgarden launches out to the track.
A blonde ponytail is the only thing that distinguishes Brown, a 24-year-old native of Wilmington, Illinois, from the rest of the male crew members. The poise she carries doesn’t give way to the nerves of being the first full-time female crew member to go over the wall for Team Penske.
“I feel like it's business as usual right now,” Brown said. “I'm nervous, but also I feel like being nervous is a good thing. It shows that you've worked for it, you're ready for it and that there's something to prove.”
This moment is everything Brown has worked for. It’s a culmination of blood, sweat and tears as part of the grind of working in motorsports. She was raised in a racing family and raced four-cylinders on dirt tracks. Eventually, she recognized her path meant trading a steering wheel for a wrench.
Brown progressed from entry-level positions until finding her way into the doors at Team Penske in 2019, working as a shop mechanic on the NASCAR side. Eventually, she went from a fuel cell specialist to becoming a traveling mechanic, making her way to the team’s INDYCAR program during the 2021 season.
At that year’s 105th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, she was presented her first chance to go over the wall with the Paretta Autosport, a female-led team that made its NTT INDYCAR SERIES debut with technical support from Team Penske.
Last year, Brown worked as an extra crew member assigned to aeroscreen tear-offs for Newgarden. Dedicated to her craft, she was relentlessly pursuing ways to improve, a standard since she joined Team Penske that got the attention of pit crew coach Shaun Rinaman.
“Caitlyn, from day one, she’s been extremely coachable,” Rinaman said. “Knowing that, I knew she was going to develop into a good tire changer. It's been exciting to see how far she's come. From day one, it looked like she had something and then to where we're at now, it's like, 'Wow, that was pretty impressive.'
“She works hard. She does a lot of extra stuff on her own, and she's definitely earned it. I've got no complaints about any kind of work that she's done because she'll ask me for more work. She'll want to put in the time, the effort on our tests. She's usually in the gym at 5 a.m., sending me her workout and what she did that day. She tends to sometimes put in a little more effort than some of the guys. It's been neat to see that from somebody.”
With the step up in responsibilities this year as the inside tire changer on Newgarden’s car, along with already being the rear end mechanic, Brown is aware she is helping set the example for the next generation.
“I’ve got to remind myself a lot that I'm being watched sometimes,” Brown said. “Sometimes I just forget that I do stand out just because I try and make myself as part of the team as much as possible and try to blend in as much as possible.
“So, I got to remind myself like, 'You stand out, you're representing something that's not seen a lot.' That's been really cool. I'm the first for Team Penske, which is awesome and that's something I'm pretty proud of, but there's definitely been some before me, and it's cool to be a part of that and be a stepping-stone for the others that are going to come after, too.”
Brown had a front row seat last season to the intense title chase by Newgarden that fell a narrow 16 points short. Now, though, she has a larger part to play as she helps Newgarden pursue a third – and her first – Astor Challenge Cup.
“Last year, I felt like we were really close and had a couple more things fallen our way, we could have gotten one, and even that would've just been awesome,” Brown said. “But now to be changing a tire and being part of that responsibility, to go out and try and to get a championship this year with him would be awesome. It's a car everyone looks at; Newgarden is such a big figure in the sport and with TC (Tim Cindric, strategist for Newgarden; president of Team Penske) on the timing stand, so you got the eyes on you. So, you just got to be able to perform come race day.”
Brown has walked a path few have chosen, but it is a template for success for any young girls and women who aspire one day to work in motorsports.
“Work hard,” Brown said. “Keep your head down. Gender, it doesn't matter. The car doesn't know what you are, who you are. It's going to go. You’ve just got to do your job and do it right.
“The right people will see it, and the right people will put you where you need to be because they'll see that you're working hard, and that's what they want on their car. They don't want you just because of who you are or what you are. They want you because you're a good mechanic, and they want that on their car.”